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Developing an autonomous freight-carrying drone

Posted 4 August

“The world of transport and mobility is changing rapidly with advances in technology that will enable fully autonomous vehicles to become a reality on the roads in the UK in the near future. The aim of the AirPOD project was to apply aspects of this new technology developed for autonomous vehicles to enable a drone to carry high value cargo or goods to a precise location without any human intervention.  Further development could also lead to modular transport of passengers via drone transfer between road, water and rail.”

Harper Adams University has been working to develop the UK’s first prototype autonomous drone, designed to carry goods and, eventually, passengers to enable the delivery of crops and medical supplies to otherwise inaccessible locations.  

Parmjit Chima, Head of Department of Engineering and project lead and Jonathan Gill, Mechatronics Researcher and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Pilot at Harper Adams University have been working with Westfield Technology Group  

The joint project has been using advanced technology to develop and test the autonomous freight-carrying drone, known as an AirPOD.  Funded by the Niche Vehicle Network Proof of Concept Technology Transfer Competition, the drone could help to improve the accuracy and timeliness of delivery of medical and farm supplies to locations that might ordinarily be difficult to access.  

The project has developed and autonomously operated small-scale model AirPOD,  and capable of attaching and moving goods to precise locations.   

By adapting a drone, the research teams at Westfield and Harper Adams designed and developed  a latching mechanism for the cargo capsule, which was then in turn able to be dropped off and attached to an autonomous vehicle on the ground, which had been adapted to be able to negotiate both the road and other ground surfaces.   

Westfield Technology Group is working at the cutting edge of driverless cars, and has partnered with Harper Adams University to support the development of a fully-integrated, last mile hands-free transport solution.  Westfield, the project lead, is delighted to have such a close working relationship with the university and now has Harper Adams students and graduates working for and with the company and sharing resources in the vision technology field.  

“We see Harper Adams as a strategic partner for UK Drone Technology and Vision systems,” Julian Turner, CEO of Westfield said. “We are delighted with their support and student base. It is partnerships like these that keep the UK technology sector at the front of the global audience,” he added.    

“The world of transport and mobility is changing rapidly with advances in technology that will enable fully autonomous vehicles to become a reality on the roads in the UK in the near future. The aim of the AirPOD project was to apply aspects of this new technology developed for autonomous vehicles to enable a drone to carry high value cargo or goods to a precise location without any human intervention.  Further development could also lead to modular transport of passengers via drone transfer between road, water and rail.” said Parmjit Chima. 

The Harper Adams research team is responsible for the drone communication element of the project, including flight control over long distances and collision avoidance, and both the communication software and autopilot control systems have been updated to allow this.  Trials in the field have begun at Harper Adams, with Civil Aviation Authority permission, and discussions to extend the trial with various hospitals and parts of The Lake District have commenced 

Going forward, the AirPOD development, together with the Ground Rover, the vehicle which completes the cargo delivery, developed by the Westfield Group, could have applications in delivering medication between hospitals or carrying crop seed and animal feed to destinations with an accuracy of 10 centimetres. 

Harper Adams university is known for its strength in the fields of automotive and agricultural engineering, using experts in their field and having developed a programme of study that enables graduates to have the skills required to enter the workplace.  

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